September 25, 2022

With the abundant highlights from the first two albums, the live album and Lancashire Hustler joining Overdog at the top table, there are far more hits than misses here… A fine set, and I’ll wager some albums here that many like me had heard of but never investigated. Now’s the chance!

The Keef Hartley Band were something of an unusual quantity when they emerged with their debut album in 1969. There were (and would continue to be) plenty of bands around named after one member – The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Spencer Davis Group etc – but the twist here is that Keef Hartley was in fact the drummer. This wasn’t unprecedented of course, as The Dave Clark Five and Ginger Baker’s Airforce spring to mind, but then again Dave Clark dated from earlier in the decade when people were generally less concerned with the members of a band and who played what, and in Baker’s case it was clearly hanging the title on the big name. Hartley, on the other hand, was anything but high profile, though he was a respected drummer who had spent time, like so many before him, in the academy which was John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. As he himself admits, in the notes he penned about these albums before his untimely passing in 2011 (now included here), he served as much as anything as what he terms ‘a catalyst’ for the band to exist around, though one does get the sense that he largely helmed the musical direction on many of these albums. He also began producing the records himself by the time of album number three as well as, clearly, being a very talented drummer himself.

For the first album, 1969’s Halfbreed, he recruited a gifted line-up of talent, though all were unknowns at the time. Featuring horns as well as the typical rock band line-up, he was joined by guitarist Spit James (changed from his real, and rather mundane, name of Ian Cruickshank), guitarist/vocalist Miller Anderson and a young and pre-fame Gary Thain on bass, prior to his time in Uriah Heep as well as trumpet player and brass arranger Henry Lowther, along with several ‘floating’ auxiliary members also appearing. That first album displays a very blues-centric style, with just a couple of major departures, with those bluesier numbers ranging from the lively, rocking Sinnin’ For You through to the lengthy and magnificent guitar/vocal tour de force which is Born To Die, while the other directions are mainly seen in the opening and closing tracks. The first piece, the multi-part Sacked/Hearts And Flowers/Confusion Theme/The Halfbreed is a rather proggy-flavoured opening selection (introduced by the telephone voice of John Mayall, seemingly about to sack Hartley from his band!), and the closing Think It Over/Too Much To Take is based around a dynamite guitar riff which is extremely reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s Willie The Pimp – although, interestingly, this album appeared a couple of months before Zappa began recording his Hot Rats album, so who knows whether there might have been an inspiration?

Next up, later that same year, was the album The Battle Of North West Six, the somewhat odd title referring to the London postcode of the recording studio. This time out saw the blues take more of a back seat role – still there but as an influence rather than an overt style. The horns are more prominent here, and the overall impression is of a jazz-rock direction, though not in terms of fusion, but more in the vein of early Chicago. Rock riffs are driven powerfully along with the brass section beautifully and sympathetically arranged by Henry Lowther, and any lovers of the first two or three Chicago albums in particular will be sure to find a lot to their liking here. Not that it’s a one-dimensional sound – far from it, indeed, with Hickory being a restrained and rather lovely piece, and the unexpected Poor Mabel (You’re Just Like Me) taking a sharp left turn into rollickingly upbeat country-rock. There are plenty of highlights here, among them the quite proggy opener The Dansette Kid/Hartleys Jam For Bread (taking its title partly from the popular UK brand of jam, Hartleys). Not Foolish Not Wise and the closing Believe In You are more than worth their salt as well, but a real late highlight on the disc comes in the shape of four live recordings from the time which really show what a great force the KHB were on stage. The non-album track Spanish Fly is a pounding, unstoppable ball of instrumental energy, while the version of Me And My Woman from this album puts the already quite impressive studio original in the shade.

1970’s The Time Is Near is next, with its striking cover image doing double duty as the cover for this box. It’s often cited as being perhaps the band’s best work, but I would beg to differ on that score. There is excellent material on here, such as the lengthy title track with some marvellous soloing from Anderson, and also Premonition and the closing Change, but there is a nagging issue with the album which can, I believe, be laid at the feet of the horn section, and specifically at Lowther’s previously faultless arrangements. Indeed, Hartley himself notes in the comments about this album that owing to some problems he was having in his personal life at the time, Lowther was not delivering the quality that he had previously, and it is easy to detect this. Rather than sitting nicely embedded within the group dynamic and subtly enhancing the power and swing of the music, the horns here tend to overpower somewhat, being more prominent yet paradoxically less effective in the mix, with the guitar and keyboards often struggling to make their presence felt. It’s still an enjoyable listen, but these issues, along with a couple of the opening tracks tending towards the slicker style of later Chicago releases, or perhaps that of Blood Sweat And Tears, does leave the album somewhat hamstrung. There is a definite feel of something needing to be done. And so it was, with Lowther departing and the next album, 1971’s Overdog, taking things in an altogether more powerful, rounded and often downright funky direction.

That funky edge is shown off immediately with Overdog‘s opening track You Can Choose being a superb statement of intent, with a band suddenly sounding vibrant and alive in a way they hadn’t quite done on the previous record. The three-part Theme Song/En Route/Theme Song Reprise is undeniably one of the band’s finest tracks to date, with the lengthy En Route middle-section delivering some brilliantly executed instrumental jazz-rock with a real spring in its step. Jon Hiseman from Colosseum even turns up to do a bit of drum duetting with Hartley. Almost every track here is a winner, with the title song being a blueprint for how to do funk-influenced rock, while the lengthier and multi-faceted Roundabout is a masterpiece of progressive, jazzy rock. To these ears, it is definitely the KHB’s finest hour, and an essential recording. There’s more, however, with the disc being rounded off with some magnificent live tracks, the sound immediately fuller and crackling with energy. The versions of Roundabout and You Can Choose from the Overdog album both beat the already excellent studio counterparts, but the real revelation here is You Can’t Take It With You from the previous album. The limitations of the brass arrangements on that recording are laid bare completely by this scintillating version, which shows just how good, and powerful, the song had the potential to be. There is even space for the single version of Roundabout, split over the two sides of the 7-inch as Part One and Part Two, and actually lasting for over a minute longer than the album version. Overall, a tremendous disc.

It’s a shame that there was never an official KHB live album released, but later in 1971 we did get the next best thing with the release of Little Big Band, a live set recorded by the Keef Hartley Big Band configuration, which differed from the regular touring band by virtue of having a huge horn section along for the ride. In all, there were 18 musicians in the band, the majority of them horn players, and while they do make an impressively powerful sound, the brass is once again, I feel, just a little overbalanced for much of the time, with Miller Anderson’s guitar in particular fighting its way, only partially successfully, to avoid being drowned out. Thankfully, by the time we get to the second half (and the old second side) of the album, everything slots into place much more satisfyingly for what is a near-22 minute medley of music from the debut Halfbreed album, here groan-inducingly titled ‘Legoverture’! Other than the occasional overbalancing of the brass vs guitar equation, things work brilliantly, with a genuinely exciting sound which at times is stunning – such as the moment around two thirds of the way through when the whole band power back in for the final race to the finish. It’s an album which takes a little while to settle, but ends on a magnificent note.

At this point, Miller Anderson – who by this point was composing almost all of the material – elected to leave in order to concentrate on a solo career. With Dino Dines already gone, and his keyboard duties having been taken over by Mick Weaver, Gary Thain was left as the sole original member alongside Hartley in the reconstituted band which recorded the final KHB album, 1972’s Seventy Second Brave. Junior Kerr came in on guitar and vocals (with Pete Wingfield on piano and vocals), and while Kerr is clearly an accomplished guitarist and serviceable vocalist, the magic had largely departed with Anderson. Shorn of his songwriting duties, the writing responsibility was shared around several band members, and the difference is immediately obvious with a plethora of unremarkable and underpowered would-be funky compositions. There are moments on the record when the band hit a groove, Kerr solos up a storm and the old excitement starts cooking again, but these moments are generally high points in rather undistinguished songs (Don’t Sign it is a clear example). Unsurprisingly, this was to be the final KHB album, as they went out with something of a whimper rather than a bang – but rather more surprisingly this was not the end of the tale, nor is it the end of this collection. 1973 brought an album released under Keef Hartley’s name as a solo artist, and it is an unexpectedly excellent record and real return to form.

The title Lancashire Hustler came from the fact that Hartley was a native of Preston, and it ended up being the only album issued under his name (a follow up was recorded but sadly lost). Junior Kerr is back, but the lead vocals are much improved through the participation of Jess Roden, who was a fine singer. Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer from Vinegar Joe also contribute some vocals on the album, and indeed the opening track is a version of Circles from the first Vinegar Joe album. It has to be said that it veers a little too close to The Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down at times in the arrangement, but it’s excellent for all that. The oddly titled Shovel A Minor is a quite lengthy instrumental which displays more fire in the playing than the whole of the last album put together, and indeed there are only a couple of weaker moments on the whole record. Australian Lady is a little meandering, though redeemed in a way by an oddly charming coda featuring Hartley’s mother playing the great Welsh song Men Of Harlech on the piano, as an add-on track sometimes credited as ‘Keef’s Mom’, but the only real stiff in the collection is You And Me, which it has to be said really is dreadful. Coming over like a parody of the worst ironically soulless ‘pop-soul’ singles from the ’70s that you can remember, it is comfortably the worst thing on the whole of the seven discs here, and if you get to the end you are unlikely to ever resist skipping it again. No matter, however, as the album, and this box set, finishes conversely on one of the absolute finest tracks of the whole collection. Dance To The Music is a cover of the Sly And The Family Stone classic, but it is much more than that, as Keef gets several of the old gang together again as guests, including Miller Anderson and Blue Weaver, for an utterly joyous blast through the song which generates such a fantastic groove that it isn’t a stretch to say that it even beats Sly and the gang into second place. Honestly, it could go on for 20 minutes and it wouldn’t get old – if you ever want to seek out an example of how to meld rock and funk together in the most seamlessly perfect way possible, just go to this track. It’s absolutely outstanding, and a finer end to the output of Keef Hartley and his various musical collaborators you could not wish to find.

All in all, this box has its highs and lows (Seventy Second Brave is definitely one to skip, but Disc Four featuring Overdog and the accompanying live material is the absolute crown jewel here. With the abundant highlights from the first two albums, the live album and Lancashire Hustler joining Overdog at the top table, there are far more hits than misses here. Keef Hartley sadly left us just over a decade ago, but his recollections of each album, penned in 2008, make up a fine accompanying booklet and tribute to the man himself. Miller Anderson is revealed throughout as the hugely overlooked talent he is and was, and any Uriah Heep completists, it goes without saying, will need this for all of the great Gary Thain’s contributions. A fine set, and I’ll wager some albums here that many like me had heard of but never investigated. Now’s the chance!